Welcome to the chaos: Ranking the challenges faced by the Coastal Division's four new coaches
Coastal chaos isn’t just a buzzword. It’s been a way of life in the ACC since the conference divided into two divisions in 2005.
With the conference dropping its divisional format next year, it’s only appropriate that the final season of Coastal competition could turn out to be the most chaotic yet.
An indication of the uncertainty can be found in the balloting for the ACC’s preseason poll, where 6 of the 7 teams received at least 1 first-place vote.
The Coastal has long been considered the league’s junior varsity division, and this year’s disparity appears to be greater than ever, exaggerated by the concentration of top teams and the return of all 7 starting quarterbacks in the rival Atlantic.
Complicating matters is the arrival of 4 new coaches, 3 of whom are rookies when it comes to running their own programs.
“I think as much as the Coastal has been fluctuating up-and-down, pretty much everybody has either turned over their quarterback or turned over their coach. When you do those two things, you create a lot of variety in terms of how the season can play out,” said one of the newbies, Duke’s Mike Elko. “We might go out with a bang this year, for sure.”
How big of a bang depends on the speed with which each of the first-year coaches adjusts to his new surroundings and the strength of the rosters they inherit.
Here’s a ranking, in order of degree of difficulty, of the challenge each will face this season:
1. Mike Elko, Duke
The former defensive coordinator at Wake Forest under Dave Clawson, Notre Dame and most recently Texas A&M has the tallest task of the bunch as he attempts to regain the forward momentum lost during the final 2 seasons of David Cutcliffe’s tenure.
The Blue Devils are coming off back-to-back 9-loss seasons and have won just 1 ACC game since 2019. And while there is some talent around which to build, with 13 returning starters including third-team All-ACC selections DeWayne Carter at defensive tackle and Shaka Heyward at linebacker, the prospects for immediate improvement are iffy at best.
That’s especially the case on offense, where the only bright spot on a unit that ranked dead last in the ACC in scoring – first-team all-conference running back Mataeo Durant – is gone and the two sophomores vying for the starting quarterback job have thrown for 2 touchdowns and less than 500 career yards between them.
If nothing else, Elko’s arrival has injected a badly needed wave of energy into a program that had stagnated since its school-record run of 6 bowl appearances in a 7-year span from 2012-18.
2. Brent Pry, Virginia Tech
As tall of a task as Elko faces in changing the culture of his program at Duke, Pry faces an even more complicated set of circumstances in Blacksburg. Not only does he have to win over his players while installing a new system, but he must also spend time and energy mending the fences damaged by the man he replaced, Justin Fuente.
Fuente ruffled the feathers of the Hokies’ faithful with his stoic personality and a very public disconnect with many of the players and traditions that made the program so successful under Hall of Fame coach Frank Beamer. It also didn’t help that Tech’s amazing streak of 25 consecutive winning seasons ended on his watch and that the team finished under .500 in each of the past 2 seasons.
Pry will undoubtedly benefit from the fact that he’s replacing the man who replaced “the man,” along with the fact that he has previous ties to Tech, as a former graduate assistant to Beamer and long-time defensive coordinator Bud Foster. He’s also blessed with a manageable schedule that avoids preseason ACC favorite Clemson and features nonconference games against Wofford, Furman and Liberty.
The energetic 52-year-old inherits a team that lost its quarterback, top rusher on offense and interceptions leader on defense. But he’s hit the transfer portal hard in an attempt to replenish the talent pool. His success in evaluating the incoming veteran talent and his ability to mesh it into a unit will go a long way toward determining how quickly he can get the Hokies headed back toward the top of the division standings.
3. Tony Elliott, Virginia
Unlike his counterparts at Duke and Virginia Tech, Elliott has the advantage of taking over a program that isn’t in need of a major reboot. His predecessor Bronco Mendenhall built a solid foundation before unexpectedly stepping down “to reassess, renew, reframe and reinvent … the next chapter” of his life.
The Cavaliers were a bowl team last season and return a wealth of offensive talent featuring strong-armed quarterback Brennan Armstrong and two of the most dynamic receivers in the league in Dontayvion Wicks and Keytaon Thompson. It’s a trio that could potentially get even better under the direction of a new coach who learned his trade as an offensive coordinator.
Having served his apprenticeship winning championships at Clemson, Elliott won’t have to work as hard to gain the respect of his players as other rookies making their head coaching debuts. He knows what it’s like to be around a successful program, and thanks to the example of his mentor Dabo Swinney, what it takes to build one.
“I learned a lot about how to build a culture and what protecting and establishing a culture will do for a program if you want to sustain it,” Elliott said of his time with the Tigers. “That’s what’s so awesome about Coach Swinney. He is very inclusive.
“He was instrumental in helping me develop, but he also taught me that, hey, you don’t have to be in a rush. The objective is to be an old head coach, not just a head coach.
4. Mario Cristobal, Miami
Cristobal has stepped into by far the most advantageous situation of the 4 Coastal Division newcomers.
He’s an experienced Power 5 head coach, having led Oregon to bowls in each of the past 5 seasons. He has a full understanding of the history and culture of his school, having helped the Hurricanes win 2 national championships as an offensive lineman during the program’s glory days.
And he takes over a team that finished with a winning record in 2021, featuring a fully stocked roster that includes quarterback Tyler Van Dyke, last year’s ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year, and a defense loaded with young talent.
Cristobal’s biggest obstacle to finally getting Miami over the hump that has led to the downfall of every coach since the school’s entry into the ACC – other than repairing a leaky offensive line – is the weight of high expectations. The Hurricanes have been picked as the preseason Coastal favorite.
While it’s the 6th time that’s happened in 18 seasons since joining the league, they’ve only followed through and actually won the division once, in 2017. That puts the pressure squarely on Cristobal, much more so than his fellow newcomers, to reverse that trend, survive the chaos and send the Coastal out with a bang.